• Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect in Adults

    You’re not sure where your anxiety came from. Maybe you’ve been to some therapy to work through the symptoms in the present day, but it didn’t go much deeper than that. You want to squash it and get to the root of the issue. Sometimes anxiety can come from a traumatic event that we can trace back to. If you’ve been in a car accident, you might be anxious driving again until you’ve worked through it, for example.

    What I’m going to be talking about here is the effects of childhood emotional neglect when we were going through events as a child and no one was there to help us metabolize our emotions as they were happening. Then I’ll explain ways to help yourself now with your anxious symptoms.

    As we go through our childhood, we go through many events. We have to transition to a new school, our siblings pick on us, there’s strange people at the grocery store, our dad is frustrated. We also have good events too: we received kindness from friends, a hug from our parents, we do well at something. As a result, we feel all sorts of emotions: sadness, hurt, scared, loved, accomplished. In order for us to know what is going on in our internal emotional world, we need someone else: our parents or caretakers to attune to what is going on inside of us to bring meaning to our emotions and cope. This requires that parent to be emotionally intelligent, attuned, present, and loving. Unfortunately, this is a tall order. Parents get distracted, they’re tired, they don’t understand their own emotions, let alone their child’s. A lot is going on for you emotionally as a child, and it’s going missed.

    I’m going to stop right here because if that’s you- your parent missed you- that might be painful to grieve. You were left to discern your emotions and how to deal with them by yourself- and there was no way to know how to do that as a child. Now the ways that you coped and the feelings of shame, disappointment and hurt, are following you to adulthood and they still haven’t been metabolized. You may avoid situations, you may be on edge more days than not, and you may have been trying to outrun the shame you felt in first grade for the last 20 years.

    D.W. Winnicott wrote in his article Fear of Breakdown that what you are trying to outrun now because it would be too painful, disappointment, and cause a breakdown has ALREADY HAPPENED. There was a moment in your life when it already happened, but it was missed. You’ve already felt pain and disappointment, but didn’t have someone around to help you metabolize those feelings. If you are worried about the shame you might feel if you don’t pass your class, you have probably already felt shame before but didn’t know how to metabolize that feeling to knowing your worth- because no one was around to know you were feeling shame and to tell you that. Now you become beyond anxious before every test.

    How To Deal With Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect

    1. Go to therapy. What I want to clearly communicate here is that there is hope. I walk with my clients through these painful feelings as they tell me their experiences so that they don’t go missed. As an adult we can bring understanding to those feelings so that you aren’t scared of them anymore.
    2. Do emotional check-ins. I know you are busy, but take some time to be your own witness to your feelings so that they don’t get missed this time around.
    3. Grieve. Take some time to grieve those parents who didn’t understand or who weren’t present to your emotional world.
    4. Ask yourself: Did what I’m afraid of now already happen in the past? This is a way of thinking through your childhood experiences so that you can really feel the feelings instead of trying to avoid them now.

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